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There is so much to write about with regard to Harvard’s decision to end Early Action that it is tough to know where to begin. Today’s project is parsing this Inside Higher Ed overview.

Harvard University, in announcing plans Tuesday to eliminate its early admissions program next year and move to a January 1 application deadline for all undergraduates, made clear that it would welcome any institution wanting to follow its lead.

“We hope other places will give up early admission,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard College’s dean of admissions and financial aid. “Plenty of institutions that are exceedingly strong [in enrollment rates] could consider this. It’s not a small number. It’s a large number.”

Good luck. As the rest of the article makes clear, lots of schools have no interest in following Harvard’s lead because EA/ED (early action/early decision) are useful programs (for them). Of course, Harvard doesn’t care what lesser schools do, but if Yale/Stanford/Princeton don’t follow suit, EA will be back in two years.

Richard Zeckhauser, a Harvard professor of political economy and co-author of the book The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite, said that if institutions such as Princeton University and Stanford University stick with early admissions programs, even non-binding ones, they will “undoubtedly enroll top students who would have applied early to Harvard and gone to Harvard prior to this change.”

Exactly correct. (Full disclosure: Zeckhauser was my thesis adviser. See here for another review of the book.)

For years, education experts have said that the practice of binding early admissions favors wealthy applicants who have the benefits of college counseling and don’t need to compare financial aid packages among institutions. Colleges are generally filling more and more of their classes with early applicants, which some feel adds increasing pressure on high school seniors to select their favorite college by late fall.

The only reason that EA/ED favor wealthy applicants is because the college’s themselves do the favoring. Harvard could easily keep EA and just ensure that the same standards were used for EA as RD (regular decision). (In fact, Harvard claims to do precisely this, but that’s a fight for another day.) No one is holding a gun to Harvard’s (or Williams’) head and demanding that EA/ED applicants be held to a lower standard. Colleges choose to do so because doing so fulfills their goals.

Love the “some feel” usage above. Who feels this? Again, the whole notion that EA/RD is, on net, bad for students (especially the students at rich schools, i.e., the only ones likely to feel this “pressure”) is mostly ridiculous. Maybe kids today are different, but the chance to get the whole process done by December, to have 4 extra months of rest and relaxation, was a wonderful deal back in the day. Am I the only one who thinks that the Let’s-Stress-Out-Every-High-Achieving-Student until April 15 is not really what students themselves want?

Richard C. Levin, Yale’s president, said in a statement that it’s unclear that eliminating early admissions would result in the entrance of more students from low income families.

Correct! The whole we’re-doing-this-for-the-poor-kids schtick is a crock because Harvard can favor poor kids as much or as little as it wants to right now. If Harvard were just concerned about letting in too many rich kids early in the process it could, you know, stop letting in so many rich kids via EA. Harvard has the power. No, the issue here is much deeper.

By the way, if Larry Summers were still president of Harvard, I bet that this change would not have happened.

Harvard’s program, which was adopted more than 30 years ago, is non-binding and allows students until May to make their choice. Fitzsimmons, the Harvard admissions dean, said the university wanted to bring attention to the country’s increasingly high stakes and high pressure admission process, which he said “has veered out of control badly in the past three or four years.”

We have mocked Fitzsimmons before. Is there any evidence that things now are more out of control than they were in, say, 2002? None that I am aware of. Moreover, Harvard could easily makes things easier on it applicants by making public the data on applicants and acceptances grouped by various criteria. For example, if you are non-URM, non-athletic-recruit, non-billionaire and have less than 1400 SATs, your chance of getting into Harvard is probably less than 1%. If Harvard published that data, it would save thousands of applicants all sorts of anxiety. But Fitzsimmons won’t publish it because he wants thousands of students, with no realistic chance of getting in, to apply.

Admissions deans at some of the highly competitive, but smaller, liberal arts colleges, said they are in a different position from Harvard when it comes to admissions. Dickinson College, for instance, gets slightly less than half of its class of about 600 students each year from early admission. Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College, said the program helps the college get an early idea of its fall enrollment, and it has no plans to eliminate the program.

Speaking of people that we have mocked, there is no reason to believe anything that Robert J. Massa has to say. Dickison needs to “get an early idea of its fall enrollment”? Give me a break! The food service people need to figure out, a year in advance how many hot dogs to order? The reason that Dickison uses ED so much is that doing so pushes up the yield numbers and the quality (and wealth) if its entering class. I don’t begrudge Dickison doing so. Indeed, if I were Massa, I would recommend the same. But try not to lie to us in an overly transparent manner. It’s insulting!

Massa said there’s a misconception among many applicants that because they are accepted to a college with a binding admission program, they must enroll. He said students should know that they can still discard the application and enroll elsewhere if the financial aid package isn’t to their liking.

Whoa! Really? That’s not my understanding. Doesn’t Williams require you not to even apply elsewhere if you are accepted ED? If so, then a students ability to “enroll elsewhere” is theoretical at best.

Thomas Parker, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst College, said his institution restricts early admissions to 30 percent. Parker said “far too many colleges are taking far too great a percentage of their class” that way. He said he expects a more robust discussion about the economics of early admission in the coming months.

“We’re happy with where we are,” Parker added. “If we were to venture out there on our own among small liberal arts colleges, there would be a considerable risk. If we would do it in company with Williams and other liberal arts colleges, there would be less risk.”

EphBlog hearts Tom Parker ’69 because he tells it like it is, although you can be sure that the admissions officers at places like Dickison are thinking “It’s easy for Amherst to say that the rest of us use ED too much. If I were in Parker’s shoes, I could get away with just 30% too!”

Richard Nesbitt, director of admissions at Williams College, said that the institution has had early admissions since the early 1960s and that he would be surprised if many colleges, including his, follow Harvard’s lead. He said athletics admissions also play a role — It behooves colleges to admit athletes early, particularly if the institutions are concerned about losing the student to another college, or if the athlete is a borderline admit.

EphBlog hearts Dick Nesbitt ’74 even more, and not just because he is so patient and open with us.

There is much more to write about on this topic, but not today.

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#1 Comment By hwc On September 13, 2006 @ 11:47 am

Speaking of people that we have mocked, there is no reason to believe anything that Robert J. Massa has to say. Dickison needs to “get an early idea of its fall enrollment”? Give me a break! The food service people need to figure out, a year in advance how many hot dogs to order? The reason that Dickison uses ED so much is that doing so pushes up the yield numbers and the quality (and wealth) if its entering class. I don’t begrudge Dickison doing so. Indeed, if I were Massa, I would recommend the same. But try not to lie to us in an overly transparent manner. It’s insulting!

Actually, what’s “insulting” is to attack Massa without understanding the challenges a college like Dickinson faces.

Based on the admissions data for last year’s incoming class, Dickinson’s yield in the Regular Decision round was 16%. This means that they must mail 6.1 acceptance letters in April to fill each slot in the freshman class. 2048 acceptance letters to fill the remaining 336 slots. It is not difficult to understand the kind of problems (far more challenging than running out of hot dog buns) if there were even less predictability in yield.

IMO, the biggest problem with the admissions system today is that there is not enough self-selection. With students mailing a dozen applications to often poorly-researched choices, the system is stunningly inefficient in matching up students and colleges that specifically want each other. Binding Early Decision is perhaps the most efficient part of the admissions process. It really does match up colleges with the students who are most enthusiastic about wanting to attend.

Two additional comments:

I don’t know Robert Massa from a hole in the ground. However, my impresssion is that Dickinson, under Massa, has done a superb job with professional enrollment management, branding, and marketing. They have successfully created a brand identity, effectively marketed merit aid discounts, and improved the quality of their student body. I would, therefore, tend to view Massa in a positive light when it comes to modern college enrollment management techniques.

Second, why is anyone surprised that Nesbitt chose to highlight the impact of Early Decision on athletic recruiting? You guys keep scoffing at my suggestion that recruiting is a top institutional priority at Williams College. Why would a seasoned pro like Nesbitt choose to single out athletic recruiting unless it was a top priority for his office? He could have singled out the impact of ED on recruiting musicians, or science geeks, or minority students. He singled out recruited athletes.

#2 Comment By Rory On September 13, 2006 @ 7:36 pm

Lest we not forget, one of the major changes in the last couple years putting EA/ED into even further confusion was the move by Harvard to allow students to apply to multiple EA schools, effectively creating an early regular decision with their EA (before, EA had traditionally been reserved for only one school). Harvard, because of its position, has repeatedly toyed with the admissions process to either gain prestige, flexibility, or power. I don’t know about this move yet–i reserve judgement.

In defense of Dickinson, Hampshire, with a somewhat better yield statistic, had a hard time with enrollment management when i was there. we went really, really deep into the waiting list. And then, we overenrolled (partly because of having both EA and ED). So yes, getting a strong sense of the enrollment for the fall in January is very useful. To try to figure out the entire class within only the months of March and April would be extremely difficult.

#3 Comment By Anonymous On September 14, 2006 @ 7:33 pm

Dick’s nice to you cause you’re hella annoying.